FRIGHTENING FLIX by Kbatz – Kong: Skull Island

Despite Narrative Flaws, Kong: Skull Island is a Rip Roaring Good Time

by Kristin Battestella

 

Without a doubt the 2017 MonsterVerse cum 2014 Godzilla prequel Kong: Skull Island has its flaws. One shouldn’t expect perfection or deep thoughts with this fun jungle ride brimming with action and big monsters. But heck yeah let’s over-analyze the shit out of it, shall we?

Bill Randa (John Goodman) recruits ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to join the secret government group Monarch’s expedition to the elusive Skull Island alongside Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard’s (Samuel L. Jackson) elite helicopter escort. Landsat officials and mission science teams use seismic charges to map and study the island – awakening ancient monsters friend and foe, government conspiracies, and personal vengeance as the team rescues crashed World War II veteran Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) from the fantastic isle protected by King Kong.

 

Kong: Skull Island’s opening World War II crash transitions to newspapers, archive footage, and period photography on the mysterious Monarch organization as audio quotes from Truman and Kennedy lead to bleak 1973 DC protests and ironic quips about the screwed up time in Washington. Monarch needs funding to mount this satellite mapping expedition and its under the rug search amid ominous whispers of ship eating monsters and Bermuda Triangle fantastics surrounding this uncharted Pacific island. Fiery explosives reflect in the aviator glasses, animals flee the seismic bombs, and distorted music is drowned out by the destruction. People who think they are so big are made small by Kong’s giant hands and teeth – an excellent introduction with superb monster graphics and motion capture. Warped gunfire and thumping helicopter blades add foreboding to the mighty monster silhouettes as separated civilians, stranded scientists, and angry military argue who takes orders from whom. Nixon winks, geek references, and “Hold on to your butts!” keeps the old school cool coming early and often alongside minute to minute action montages with diegetic classic rock, first person shooter video game angles, and intriguing camera shots. Skull Island is an embarrassment of riches with too much to see in one viewing thanks to wild giant spider impalements and more well done personal horror vignettes with blood, gore, and brain splatter nods to Cannibal Holocaust and Evil Dead. Slow motion over the shoulder fears, creaking animal approaches, that giant log come to life – aren’t walking sticks bad enough?! The rush to repair a salvaged airplane turned riverboat adds more flying monsters and aerial fatalities to the adventure. Kong is an angry mother, but he didn’t do anything wrong in protecting his home from the dangerous creatures man has stirred, and the mission only has its bombing in the name of science to blame. Fortunately, culture shock jokes create lighthearted fun, since it’s more of a cold war with summers off, a man on the moon is eating Spam after sipping Tang, and The Cubs are never going to win the World Series. Likewise the excellent graveyard sequence combines all Skull Island’s divided and united people with scene stealing visuals, action, and monsters. Retro picture flashes and rewind clicks accent gritty zooms and intense monster filming with green gas heightening the sense of smelly vomit, skulls, bones, and gas masks. Deadly cigarettes, flames, lighters, and fumes add to the swords and machine guns poised atop the triceratops skull as man comes to regret the cruel and violent destruction he has caused.

Of course, Skull Island is also a very messy movie with an uneven dual focus. This should be either a Vietnam, horrors of war, military monster Apocalypse Now with a photographer and a scientist OR the scientific monstrosity adventure a la Jurassic Park with one ex-SAS tracker but not BOTH plots giving nobody their fair share. The us versus them scientists in blue and military in green sitting on opposite sides of the briefing is never capitalized upon but redundantly introduces everyone by name after the port of call arrivals already suffice. Likewise, conflicting, convoluted information dumps on hollow earth inklings, monsters exist proof, nature taking back the planet subtext, and more conspiracies are lost amid who’s doing the suspicious underground mapping or using dangerous seismic charges – and none of it is as important as the visual destruction despite precious little time to enjoy the awe-inspiring views. Increasingly intrusive hip highlights and filler montages distract viewers with busy, loud hyperbole, and fine jokes aren’t needed to alleviate tension because intercutting between separated characters walking to and fro for action fodder never leaves the audience with anyone long enough to appreciate their peril. Casual wonder, superficial dear family letters, and featherweight Icarus speeches can’t keep up with the up up up piecemeal quest, soldiers rightfully spazzing over the giant monkey are paid dust in favor of repeated clicks west or evac north fluff, and one trek in the wrong direction for a dead man proves pointless on top of unnecessary revenge. What should be somber shipwreck history and ancient monster worship become tossed aside double talk, and the science dialogue, monsters, and mission objectives change as people act stupid from scene to scene as needed. Littering the narrative with so many excuses that we just don’t care how each group of people and their monster attacks tie together is incredibly annoying because there is so much more potential to the friend or foe ominous and native people glossed over with photos and peace signs. Slo mo hold me back man tears turn laughable thanks to all over the place point of view voiceovers with no time for a breather properly addressing the nonsensical. Quotes about an enemy not existing until you make one get squashed between more meandering, on the nose rock montages while blow torches are convenient in one scene but forgotten the next. Our two women never talk to each other, and Skull Island can’t stick to telling its story well because it’s so desperate to appeal to as many bang for its buck viewers as possible – leaving the World War II radiation and ancient cave paintings hodgepodge to do nothing but set up the inevitable sequel.

 

All the people should have been listed in the blurb at the bottom of the Skull Island poster because no one character is fully developed – least of all top billed Tom Hiddleston as tracker James Conrad, who spends more time giving repetitive exposition on clicks, radius, or distance and unnecessary let’s go, no time to waste obviousness. It’s also noticeable that the character concept was changed when T. Hiddy was cast – perhaps in a Legendary twofer contract with Crimson Peak or during filming, for the grimy shirt jaded and gritty bearded wanderer is traded for a sunshine blonde matinee idol buff. It’s like a different guy shows up for the mission! When meeting Conrad in the bar, he’s ruthless with a cue stick. However, on the island, he’s the team negotiator, going from a rugged bad ass asking for five times the mercenary money to…Tom Hiddleston. Viewers see him as himself in Skull Island and The Night Manager rather than his Loki visage – maybe because it looks like he’s wearing his own clothes again onscreen – but someone should have been in charge of his eye candy fitness as his increasing muscles or shrinking wet shirt vary throughout the adventure. The mysteriously decommissioned tracker also suddenly cares, sneaking into restricted areas to check out the bombs and question the mission even though Conrad never gets to use this seemingly new found good guy muster. His great line, “I suppose no man comes home from war, not really,” and brief mentions of his lost father – Tom, please, no more characters with daddy issues! – go unredeemed save for dad’s handy lighter to rectify a lifetime of searching for something you can never find. Instead of calm, problem solving Conrad challenging Packard, our expert tracker gets lost and seeks higher ground before taking charge anyway after useless self sacrifices. Despite his name, there’s very little Heart of Darkness to Conrad, yet the character remains overly serious and that divine accent feels out of place – taking longer and prettier to say his exposition in a different, formal rhythm amid all the fast, casual slang. Although he has the best gas mask glory moment in Skull Island and some of the samurai choreography is reminiscent of the first advance in 300, our would be hero has no winking Indiana Jones moment nor does he take off his shirt. Why hold back when you can go all the way? But hey, those biceps aren’t enough to forgive the fact that Conrad wears a gun in a shoulder holster and never uses it!

With our rugged man and Brie Larson (Room) as anti-war photographer Mason Weaver, Skull Island feels very The People That Time Forgot. However, Weaver doesn’t cry out for her camera’s safety or click away as much as she perhaps should. She never runs out of film and such gear perils or mishaps could have been an ongoing gag, but Conrad seems to look out for her camera more than she does. There is rightfully no overt romantic plot further crowding Skull Island with unnecessary saccharin, yet their feeling each other out banter should have been utilized more – Weaver interrupts Conrad’s hero zoom by motioning for him to move over on the helicopter seat and he does. All these charming, award winning thespians have so little room to breath, leaving Weaver with lame one liners and nothing to do. The “Bitch, please!” retort for her to have several seats isn’t the right response, but her trite platitudes won’t get all these macho men pointing guns at each other to stand down either. Fortunately, her outfit isn’t uber skimpy, and Larson’s modern earthy look is perhaps the most seventies style in the cast. Weaver goes from skeptical equals Pulitzer to island believer saving injured animals too quickly with no depth to her island connections if any before ending by saying she will expose their information rather than keep this precious ecosystem secret. She could have been a hippie tree hugging activist woman alone in tune for peace with Kong, but Weaver’s touching moments with the ape are too few and far between. Whether there is some kind of native spirit and island good to counter the evil creatures below isn’t explored, and while all the scientists pick up guns, Weaver shoots with her camera only – a nice statement that just leads to her getting rescued by Conrad in every dangerous situation. A brief moment of her refusing a gun and more of her resourceful ingenuity as with Conrad’s handy lighter would have added better character strength and humor. Sadly, Skull Island has both Weaver taking pictures to expose Monarch and John Goodman’s (The Big Lebowski) underutilized Bill Randa recording film for his secret organization’s posterity. What is the point of having both such rival documentarians on the trip when they never even have the chance to object to each other onscreen?

 

But why you gotta be mean like that to Kong, Nick Fury? Despite the Vietnam withdrawals underway and orders to head home, Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard isn’t ready for the war to end. He wonders what this the fight was all for – accepting this final mission without considering the families and day jobs waiting for his Sky Devils stateside. Packard resents the camera and the media’s influence on the war as more dangerous than a gun, and objects to calling the battle lost. He’s upset at Kong for destroying his helicopter team, blaming the ape and demanding payback when he’s the one who ordered them to fly through the island’s nonsensical storm front. There’s room for more psyche, but other plot contrivances compromise Packard’s fanatical. His insistence on taking out Kong instead of the more deadly skull creature continues even when his reason for pursuing one over the other is proven more fatal, and Packard gets around the island just fine without the obligatory SAS tracker, gutting any tension the two are apparently supposed to have. After aimlessly walking for half of Skull Island, Packard needlessly divides the group when they actually come together, and any deeper hates the monster because he hates himself guilt about man’s supposed superiority is never fully explored. Certainly the Lieutenant Colonel did nothing wrong in ordering his men and defending his homeland from the horrors of war, but he takes the extinguishing the wrong monster too far and doesn’t learn from any of the mission’s bureaucratic stupidity, ultimately using napalm to flush out more creatures than he can handle. Likewise his soldiers – family man macguffin Toby Kebbell (Control), headband wearing Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and letters to his mama Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) don’t listen to local information on avoiding island perils. At once they decide it’s all for one and one for all while telling others they will be left behind if they don’t like the plan, and none of them go against the Colonel even when he is wrong and the chain of command has broken. Although dead pan Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) eating in the face of giant apes is good levity, the too crowded Skull Island keeps these military men stereotypically hip with shirtless photo sessions and no questions asked until after the fact rather than developing any killer edge e.g. Predator.

There are simply so, so, so many superfluous people in Skull Island that you can argue almost anyone doesn’t really need to be here. Landsat fraidy cat John Ortiz (Fast & Furious) deserves more than ticking the Hispanic check box with his own personal homage to Jurassic World. This looks like a diverse ensemble with representation from all walks of life, but it isn’t diversity if each monster fodder minority has five cliché lines while the white people save the day. Geologist Corey Hawkins (24: Legacy) and biologist Jing Tian (The Great Wall) look like they filmed their scenes separately from everyone else. Their brief conversations happen with no one else around and they don’t really interact with anybody on the island – simultaneously missing the opportunity for statements on the struggles of a well educated black man with a radical theory while nonetheless desperate to appeal to Asian markets with an intelligent but meek biologist who barely speaks. Hawkins’ Houston Brooks objects to the titular craziness with almost the exact same words as Mann’s Slivko, and eventually, the scientists are told to go back to the boat – which they easily find and operate without Conrad holding their hands. The post-credits scene likewise has them repeating Randa’s words on the monsters to come while again telling us not much of anything on Monarch’s intentions. Fortunately, John C. Reilly’s (Chicago) kooky World War II castaway Hank Marlow is the most dynamic character in Skull Island. He’s happy these new found people are real because he’s more than ready to get home to beer, hot dogs, and the Chicago Cubs, becoming the only fish out of water in this crazy habitat that receives any narrative payoff. I also dare say Marlow’s opening cross cultural duel turned bond with Japanese singer Miyavi as Gunpei Ikari and their subsequent hear tell eight attempts to leave the island during their forced twenty-eight year sabbatical may have been the more dramatically interesting tale – “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and all that.

 

Fine gunfire, brief World War II designs, aerial action, and impressive photography also pepper Skull Island. A variety of cool ships accent the beautiful, tropical, misty, hot locations from Hawaii, Australia, and Vietnam amid lovely waters, deadly swamps, and killer jungles keeping everyone good and sweaty. There are dangerous rocks, mountains, vegetation, and animals, too – but that giant water buffalo thing has a cute nose! Unique patinas, golden sunsets, neon, bright blues, red lighting, and choice zooms set off every frame in Skull Island, and a fiery haze makes the night time battle with Kong befitting of the island’s devilish face shape. However, despite all the old school touches, Skull Island doesn’t feel as aged as it could be. A 1973 Life Magazine and a record player don’t a la the past when everybody looks so today. The money here is rightfully spent on the badass ape kids will dig, but younger audiences probably won’t notice the early computers, retro televisions, dark room photography, old reel frames, slide projectors, or rotary phones and period references. Fortunately, these creatures are so big that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) must pull the camera back – we can see the well choreographed rumble without hiding behind panoramic swoops and hectic editing. Kong breaking free from a shipwreck’s chains is a fine homage, and the deleted scenes with more platoon camaraderie and a bristling introduction between Conrad and Packard should have been kept. Of course, Skull Island is available in different video editions with seller and regional behind the scenes exclusives. An official comic book also continues the adventure, but I wish the background material or what happens next wasn’t relegated to extras or waiting on another picture in the franchise. Although, ironically, Skull Island might have made a great limited television series with fulfilled episodes dedicated to our mad military man, lost tracker, photographer, castaway, or scorned scientists.

Kong:Skull Island seems like it began with storyboards of cool things for Kong and company to do with everything else as filler to meet the feature length duration. There’s no time to stay on Skull Island and explore its myths or monsters, and this does indeed feel like one mere stepping stone toward the inevitable Godzilla vs. Kong anticipation in 2020 thanks to postscript MonsterVerse revelations. Though entertaining, the forties bookends are abrupt and in between viewers are spoiled for choice of eye candy. Skull Island is meant to be a monster money maker and it shows with this sweet but shallow action. It wants to be man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself, but superficially potlucks all the deep possibilities. Thankfully, Skull Island is not a film meant for critical eyes and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite its narrative flaws, there’s just so much fan service that Kong: Skull Island was bound to be an enjoyable success.

 

Kbatz: Prometheus

Frightening Flix

 

Despite Its Flaws, Prometheus is Entertaining 

By Kristin Battestella

 

I feel like there’s a chest burster inside me.”

That’s what I said in the ER this past July when they asked me to answer their polite 1 to 10 point-at-the-smiley-frown pain scale. I didn’t know what was causing the increasingly horrible and unbearable pain beneath my right ribs. I could barely move, breath, or speak. I flailed my arms in pain and accidentally hit the nurse when she tried inserting my IV. Of course, this reminded me of one early hospital scene in Aliens, and later, after I clawed my husband’s hand and drew his blood, I said, “I guess this is what I get for going to see Prometheus!”

Doctors Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall Greene) petition the Weyland Company to support their archaeological discovery: ancient civilizations each repeated the same astronomical pictograph and alien “Engineers.”  Shaw sees the pattern as an invitation to the stars and the origins of humanity, and the state of the art Prometheus disembarks to the distant LV-223. Only the android David (Michael Fassbender) is awake for the journey while the rest of the crew- including the doctors, Captain Janek (Idris Elba), and Company representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) remain in hyper sleep. Once they reach the moon, the human crew rises to search an ancient monument full of dead Engineer bodies, mysterious urns, and surprising familiar iconography.  As storms fronts approach on the surface and the crew separates, one by one their fates and faiths are tested, for these Engineers and their perilous DNA projects aren’t as dormant as they seem….

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Plotting A Prequel Conundrum

Whew! It turns out it was just my gall bladder going, but director Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction with this pseudo Alien prequel was certainly on my mind most of the summer. I’d been waiting over a year for the release – even remaining spoiler free into its approach. The possibility of Alien’s back-story feels like its been in my subconscious for decades. I used to drive my father batty with speculation about how the crash on LV-426 happened, to where – or whom – that homing beacon was transmitting, and how the evil android Ash and the then unnamed but obviously money loving and corrupt Company were involved. Yes, most of these questions from Alien are not answered in Prometheus and that is this film’s blessing and curse. Some may rightfully dismiss Prometheus simply because it answers nothing beyond itself. After all, what’s the point if technically nothing gets us any closer to Alien’s mysteries? The connections and feelings are there, but it seems like Prometheus’ key elements are being spread out for its inevitable sequel or a completely new trilogy. It becomes both rushed in its foreboding yet too disjointed as the plots diverge and reveal. This almost feels like Alien 3, strangely, where one film had to suffice both its brooding horror and action SF predecessors. The internal pace is fine to start, with good cringe inducing moments and a horror styled pattern of storms and entrapped personnel. Though the deleted scenes were apparently cut for length and action pace, it feels as if Prometheus should have continued in this speculative science fiction or horror vein, with complete character intelligence and a scary food for thought.

There is room to speculate on the alien dangers and high concept religion and faith debates. However, writer Damon Lindelof (Lost) also left serious plot holes, unexplained developments, and changed script scenarios in rewriting newcomer John Spaihts’ original treatment. Nothing short of having all the action taking place on LV-426 as originally envisioned would have appeased die-hard fans. Whether Prometheus was going to be a direct sequel or not, whatever storyline you finally intended to go with – all those decisions should have been settled upon rather than be left hanging in the film. Frankly, nothing – no creature connections, planetary aspirations, or character motivations – should have been held back in the hopes for a sequel. In the theater, I was screaming to myself that this film better dang be successful enough to earn a sequel, otherwise, this will really not just disappoint, but anger the audience. If you open Pandora’s Box, do so all the way.  Innumerable plot holes and character head scratchers and inconsistencies linger in Prometheus. Some of that is answered in the viral and behind the scenes material, but you can’t hinge the full vision of your film on the extras or sequels. Not only are the big spiritual topics not as deep as could be, but the intentional ambiguity is far too on the nose. I thought I was alone in wishing for more from Lindelof’s weak touch, but Prometheus takes the easy way out by dropping its high concepts for a typical big action ending. The first half of the film is brimming with foreboding and body horrors just like Alien, but unexplained secrets become plot contrivances and what should be hidden personal or family connections are too obvious. Perhaps a truly sophisticated slow science fiction morality tale can’t achieve success today, but it feels like Lindelof didn’t even give Prometheus a chance to try.  In the behind the scenes materials, he admits he found Alien boring, and no studio today will accept boring! If one can let go of Alien and accept that Prometheus is not a direct prequel and will not answer your long held questions, then it can be enjoyed thanks to great sets, thoughts, and performances. Can a hardcore SF viewer accept the plot holes and screenplay mistakes? We don’t really have much of a choice until the supposedly in the works follow up is on the big screen.

 

 

Powerful Performances

Well, well, Michael Fassbender does it again! Perhaps his ambiguous android David wasn’t meant to steal the show, but his artificial intrigue and robot speculations are the best part of Prometheus. Though his questionable actions initially support the faith versus science explorations and romance between Shaw and Holloway, David’s seamless orchestration of the crew and events around him subtly exceeds his programming. Fassbender’s (X-Men: First Class, Shame) uniquely devoid wizard behind the curtain pushes and pulls in true Vader fashion, and this malevolent Data is almost like a synthetic child on the verge of sociopathy. David is hyperactive, told not to go somewhere or touch anything, but he continually disobeys any instruction – maybe it’s for his own purpose, maybe not. He’s androgynous and prepubescent, almost not physically developed or impotent and thus uses his superior intellect and the low opinions of others to gain control. Despite his not having emotions, Shaw becomes the twisted object of David’s affection, and he scientifically violates her in a slick and premeditated plot. It’s not desire as we would think, but rather experimental curiosity. It’s third party rape because he can, and thus in David’s mind, he should.  Thanks to Fassbender’s well-played deceptions here and in Prometheus’ viral campaign, there are times where the viewer might swear David damn well does have emotions, and this Pandora of possibilities is a tad frightening.  An android who wants to be like Lawrence of Arabia? There are no Laws of Robotics here, and it’s creepy to see David’s graduation from playing with alien bugs to using human fodder go unchecked – particularly when it is such a cold and logical step to him.  Without internal censors to curb David’s motivations and ambitions, his last shall be first realization that people are inferior is allowed to run amok and create Prometheus’ finest moments.

Naturally then, when Holloway belittles David, it is not only his own undoing, but it sets all of Prometheus’ events in motion. Rather than being the hero, Logan Marshall Green’s (Dark Blue) scientist comes off as big jerk thanks to script and character issues. He drinks because he is unhappy that he has discovered the existence of human progenitors on another planet. Huh? This writing faux pas ironically works in Fassbender’s favor. One might actually be sympathetic to David instead thanks to the way he is insulted or dismissed. The android is kind to Shaw, but her trust is betrayed and it makes for some fine work by Rapace. Noomi (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is up to snuff as our Ripley successor, oh yes.  Though younger than her co-stars, she may seem a bit too mature against Logan Marshall Green or too upscale European for American audiences. However, this edge is perfect for the deep, heavy, and spiritual Shaw. These beliefs drive her pursuit of science, but they should conflict – and her newfound alien discoveries spearhead Shaw’s reexamination of herself. It all seems kind of lofty or too high brow, but Rapace keeps Shaw likeable and believably kick ass. Yes, there are convoluted script moments and unrealistic post-injury scenes that do take the audience away from the character. She can run around alien planets and climb all over the place after that?! The lack of believability in the plot also takes a bit away from the awesomeness of her alien encounter, but no faults come from Rapace, and I look forward to more of her. 

I do, however, wish more religious connections were made out right between this trio. After all, we have a worshiped alien being birthed by a woman named Elizabeth after an impregnation orchestrated by a surrogate father. In keeping with the ABC android names of the previous films in the franchise, we have a D for David. But why the name David instead of any other D name? Was there meant to be some sort of Root of Jesse lineage and messianic message? It is Christmas aboard the ship after all, and the Shaw praying scene in the trailer was cut from the final film. One of the new creatures in Prometheus is also called a “deacon.” What exactly is all this religious iconography supposed to mean? Humanity is seeking out their alien creators and thus outgrowing their divine masters, and in some ways, David is doing the same thing to his human inventors. This ideological succession, oedipal shadings, and patricide hopes are touched upon in the script and chewed on nicely by the players when its given to them. The triumvirate keeps the entertainment and intelligence afloat for the audience, but unfortunately, the shaky foundations in the writing don’t answer these lofty questions. Had the cast been given complete character motivations and plot aspirations, nothing could have stopped Prometheus.

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Poorly Handled Ensemble

Oscar winner Charlize Theron (Monster) is ice queen good fun as Prometheus’ resident secret wielding company representative, but there could have been a lot more to her character than what we receive.  If you think about Vickers’ background and motivation too much, too many nonsensical red herrings emerge. Her big secret is quite obvious, but whether she is a human or robot isn’t hardly addressed, nor is her alternating bitchy, sympathy, intelligence and stupidity. As with David, serious Scott fans could have had their hearts set a flutter by Vickers and possible Blade Runner connections. Unfortunately, as is, the character ends up meh despite Theron’s best attempts to counter the iffy scripting. Likewise, it is always a delight to see Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) and that therein is another big hole in what could have been Prometheus glory. I’m going to be nice and say the aging make up isn’t that bad – we just know it is Guy Pearce and would rather see him be the power hungry and creator- complexed young Weyland as seen in the Ted Talks viral video. Why couldn’t he have a pre-mission briefing instead of that weird hologram recording? That right there would have gone a long way in explaining all the characters and their reasons for signing on to such a space flight! The waste of creative character developments and potential is actually almost as in your face as Weyland’s actual not so surprise twist!

Although the supporting cast is most definitely talented enough, they aren’t given much to do beyond making mistakes or being barely there. Idris Elba (Luther) certainly has the presence to be the rogue captain of this wonderful ensemble, but his heroics and humor are so broadly written all over the board in crayon that we can’t fully care about Janek despite Elba’s charisma.  He’s devil may care but spiritually sensitive and cares about his crew and ultimately, humanity. However, Janek doesn’t give two shits about crewmen in jeopardy and doesn’t bother to ask what the mission entails. This isn’t multi-dimensional character development; it’s more like the captain is just a script placeholder to use whenever something is needed. It’s a sacrilegious waste of Elba, and Rafe Spall (Anonymous), Sean Harris (Outlaw), and Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones, Red Road – Did no one in this production see Red Road?!) become plot points for alien high jinks instead of being truly developed characters. 

Similarly, we never really get to meet the potentially charming Emun Elliott (Black Death) and Benedict Wong (Dirty Pretty Things), and there are even more unnamed disappearing and reappearing soldiers aboard the titular vessel. If we’re not going to spend some time with these crewmembers in order to know their fears or faults intimately in a slow build of apprehension and peril, how can the viewer appreciate them? Deleted scenes and alternate takes improve the troop slightly, but the audience never gets the feeling this crew is in it together, as in Alien or Aliens. Sure, we need a conspirator or two, but these folks are so divided, it seems like they each had different versions of the script from which to work. If you’re not fans of the players, it is tempting to fast forward thru their stupidity and squandered opportunities. As Prometheus is, this talent becomes padding for the body count in the final act. 

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Positive Bells and Whistles

Fortunately, whatever you may think of Prometheus, it looks damn great, simply smashing. Instead of a dark and congested submarine – perhaps expected by our recent trends toward brooding, bleak, apocalyptic futures – the palette here is bright SF, with sweet looking, large-scale special effects and an imaginative ship design. It all looks sweeping, epic, and state of the art but somehow still natural and practical – a realistic progression and scientific advancement on our current technologies. There are some Alien allusions in the designs as well, and Prometheus does meld soundly as the mechanical precursor but 21st century offshoot to the franchise. Fortunately, the action scenes aren’t brimmed with unnecessary cool gadgetry for the sake of instant technological flash. The detailed and well-thought production here will outlast the in the moment product placements so often found in today’s films – remember all that MSN crap in The Island? Prometheus is not ‘sponsored by Sony’ in your face, and unlike the eighties 3D hurrah, there are no ridiculous foreground objects and actions thrusting at the screen desperation.  I dislike 3D and chose not to see Prometheus as such, however, you can still tell which swooping CGI effects shots are meant to be in the multidimensional glory. Thankfully, the exceptional Icelandic waterfalls and galactic scenery aren’t overruled or at worst ruined by the 3D as so many films are. 

Ironically, while writing this review, I received the Prometheus 4 Disc Collector’s Edition as a gift from my husband.  Of course, I’m not as interested in the 3D blu-ray disc as I am all the other critical bells, whistles, and special features.  I haven’t even gotten thru all the exhaustive behind the scenes interviews, production galleries, screen tests, commentaries, and more. Like the immensely detailed Prometheus: The Art of the Film companion book, alternate concepts, deleted scenes, storyboard ideas that didn’t make it into the film, and even those screen tests and viral videos all help to piece together a lot of the head scratching and character flaws in Prometheus.  The aforementioned video and several other blu ray and DVD editions are now available of course, each with varying degrees of special features. However, I thought it might still be amusing to share some of the quick notes from my original Prometheus Monday afternoon summer theater experience, for these trailer observations seem particularly prophetic now: “Frankenweenie looks dumb. Savages is too Oliver Stone generic, The Watch the usual comedy. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter looks too action badass can’t see the forest for the CGI, and Rock of Ages has great music but what a crappy ass cast! I would see none in the theater and would not be surprised if some or all do poorly.”   Hehe.

There is most certainly an audience for Prometheus, and viewers should see it at least twice for complete entertainment value – even more for finite assessment. Love it or hate it, general science fiction fans looking for a return to mature, sophisticated tales can find something here, and Alien fans tired of the Predator crossovers should definitely have a look. Granted, the separation from total Alien connections and the “is it or isn’t it” on the nose marketing approach was a deception to audiences expecting complete franchise resolutions. That audience burn alone is enough to not see Prometheus. Again, those expectations both helped put people in the seats to pad Prometheus’ box office and hurt its reputation by disappointing longtime fans.  Because of these botched Alien connections and the fly by night scripting, a necessary sequel is indeed forthcoming, although I wish the powers that be hadn’t mashed up Prometheus in anticipation of a follow up film or two and box office splendor. Behind the scenes flaws and Alien relations aside, Prometheus is nonetheless entertaining for fans of the cast and science fiction lovers.

 

Kbatz: Found Footage Scares

 

Found Footage Horror

by Kristin Battestella

 

Addicts, you make the call! Despite some fine performances, period or unusual settings, and interesting storytelling, I am split on these found footage styled scares thanks to that very discovered, undocumentary design that unites them – or fills them with plot holes.

 

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Apollo 18The website lunartruth.com is presented as the source for this 2011 footage recovery, and the faded lines, pops, and mixes of color or black and white seventies home movies design do nicely along with of the time gear and delightful early space program equipment. The cramped shuttle filming is a little too herky jerky and spastic camera flashes will be difficult for some, but opening interviews with the departing astronauts establish the mood, personalities, and secret situation quickly – perhaps too quickly. Sudden goodbyes, landing on the moon, and already being there for almost a week happen in the first ten minutes before some uneven, extremely slow moments with nothing happening and only the closed captioning to indicate the too soft “What was that?” eerie sounds. There’s no sense of awe, scope, or time to appreciate the possibility of this actually happening because the found footage must remain with onboard cameras and can’t allow for any clarifying movement or outside visuals. The choppy, innate presentation disrupts the intriguing conspiracy aspects – Radio Houston hasn’t exactly been honest but talk of the Department of Defense material is conveniently cut off by gaps in the video. Despite the PG-13 rating, there are some invasive bodily gruesomes and creepy contamination fears, but the chattering rock aliens may actually be unnecessary. With no scoring, the tiniest of spaces, lack of oxygen, desperate reliance on damaged equipment, and only three stranded people in foreign isolation, this should be scarier than it is. The bloody evidence of a Soviet lunar landing gone awry would have been the much more interesting antagonist. Paranoia builds nicely thanks to unexplained injuries, missing objects, and others listening in on the lunar frequencies, but need to know excuses, stupidity, and nonsensical turns can’t disguise the cheating found footage plot holes. The deadly hysteria and upsetting outcome would have been far more dramatic had the audience been able to just clearly see it happen. Whether this footage is being transmitted back to earth or later magically retrieved is never explained, but the end credits roll to the tune of We Three Kings of Orient Are. Say what?

 

As Above So Below – The disorienting, chaotic start to this 2014 found footage tale compromises the danger of all its tunnels, statues, catacombs, and artifacts because we can’t see much less appreciate them thanks to the sideways camera or off and on flashlights. Young and reckless Perdita Weeks (Lost in Austen) rattles off her credentials and always assures the documentary is paramount while risking harm to others. She heeds no warnings, argues with the more experienced, and audaciously accuses others while she destroys priceless discoveries for her own transformative gain. Instead of Dante food for thought, the wrongfully determined, spelunking hipster plot comes off ala National Treasure – complete with a first clue action start, a break in to inspect the back of a marker, begrudging allies who only want gold, going underground via a tomb, and following historical riddles through one hidden chamber after another. Our cameraman is also a wise cracking, injury prone, token black guy whom we hardly see. His future bodes so well! And hey, there’s no cell phone service underground, obviously. Parisians inexplicably speaking English instead French, obligatory claustrophobia, Indiana Jones rats and knights, and random cult worshipers add to the borrowed contrivances, and it’s tough to make the cliches and busy footage both work due to the increasing demands on our suspension of disbelief. The finest parts here are when the camera remains still with one person in panic. Creepy old phones and broken pianos below add to the dread and maze like inability to escape, creating enough forlorn without the gimmicks. Real cave interiors add to the Egyptian booby traps, however the jump scares, supernatural hell horrors, and a much too much rushed finale abandon the established rules. Was all the metaphysical worth it? Are we supposed to be glad that one got the rectification she desired at the expense of others? This is entertaining for viewers who fall for the frights in the Halloween fun house, but despite attempts at literary and historical allusions, longtime horror audiences and wise cinema fans will see everything coming.

 

The Last Exorcism This 2010 ‘discovered’ religious documentary is awkward and pretentious to start with contradictory interviews and a quack minister as its subject. Do we scoff or go with the unscrupulous trick crucifix? Perhaps the lip service narrations provide the desired fakery tone, but there’s no need to overtake the Louisiana visuals and local interviewees’ superstitious state of mind. Patronizing and preachy telling instead of showing may put off viewers, but the talk of demons, Lucifer, and exorcist history add a much needed edge. Bizarre humor and resentment of the camera add dimension as well – hidden filming or distant silent observation build secrecy as blame, suggested mistreatments, and apparent abuses mount. Do the investigation methods of this hack minister encourage superstition where medicine is needed? Is this crappy dog and pony show giving believers what they want helpful or risking a young girl’s life? Medical consequences, spooky circumstances, disturbing familial twists, and freaky camera witnessing escalate the possessed or crazy debate, but hysterical, herky-jerky visuals and swerving camera action are distractingly obvious, taking away from the well done demonic ambiguity because the viewer is overly aware of the confusing, frenetic film making. One too many twists, red herrings, and foreshadowing that gives everything away happen too many times in this frustrating 90 minutes, and like all people who don’t realize they are in a horror movie, no one ever simply leaves or goes for help. Ironically, I’m not sure this is really a horror movie but rather a backwater thriller with tacked on supernatural elements, and I don’t care to see The Last Exorcism Part 2 either.

 

The Quiet OnesThis 2014 nuHammer mix of science and supernatural has a great atmosphere to start. The isolated British setting, 1974 style, and on form, age appropriate cast lend a serious, mature tone. Cool, old time equipment and clunky cameras add to the grainy film feelings and harken toward a classic Hammer design. Where is the line between evil and mental illness? Do you seek a doctor or a priest for your affliction? These questions and a touch of kinky suggestion are smartly played instead of going for today’s depraved sensationalism. The PG-13 rating wasn’t as bad as I feared, but wise horror viewers can tell the editing is designed to toe the ratings line with near bathtub nudity, scandalous bedrooms, and only a few blood and gory scenes. Mixing the traditional shooting with found footage style designs also seems amiss – calling attention to this gimmicky effect is too on the nose, and the shaky dropping the camera moments feel more funny and annoying than scary startling. We’ve seen better crazed or disturbia elsewhere, so the debate on torturing a young patient in an experiment on possession or illness feels weak amid the series of loosely held together Ghost Hunters bumps and metaphysical double talk. The parapsychology possibilities and unfulfilled back-story on mental repression, evil channeling, and occult history won’t be enough for horror audiences expecting more scares, and the final half hour unravels into a mess of this twist, that twist, a ye olde library research montage, and another twisty twist. This is watchable for younger audiences today, but there is definitely a lingering, unfinished, or too many hands in the pot behind the scenes feeling overshadowing the potential here. I kind of feel like I’ve only seen half the movie and wonder where the rest of the footage is!